Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Five Minute Flashes, Part 2

The short version: Fantasycon 2017, Ready Steady Flash, Lee Harris, writing stories in five minutes in front of a live audience, myself, Guy Adams, Anna Smith Spark and Jeanette Ng.  A darkening spot upon the surface of the sun.  A hot wind with the odour of fresh blood.  Elder gods stirring in their sunken graves.  Death ... death ... death!

Alternatively, the long version is here.

So, story number three was on the topic The Night of the Kittens, which is certainly the kind of subject that someone might come up with if a lunatic jabbed a microphone in their face and demanded that they give them a short story topic.  I bet Tolstoy never had to deal with situations like this!  I bet no-one ever told Voltaire that he had a write a story about kittens in five minutes!  I bet Joyce wasn't such an attention whore that he'd have agreed to something like this in the first place!*

This one's called The Night of the Kittens, presumably because I'd briefly recovered my ability to write obvious titles at this point...
Bill knew when he bought the house that it shouldn't have been half so cheap as it was.  There was the nuclear power plant next door, for a start; nothing ought to glow like that.  And there was the fact that the estate agent kept trying to downplay the fact that the foundations were built on an ancient Indian burial ground.  And then there was the secret government facility at the end of the road, with the armed guards in dark glasses and the weird smog hovering over it.  But what were they to do?  They had to move the cat sanctuary somewhere, especially now that Bopsy, Mrs Whiskers, Purditer and Snuggles were all of them pregnant. 
In retrospect, though, Bill thought, as he nailed another plank over the cellar door and tried to ignore the weirdly shrill, distorted mewling from the other side, the decision was certainly a mistake.
Honestly, the only thing I'm remotely proud of in that one is that I managed to come up with four different silly cat names.  And one of the four was the actual name that I actually called my actual cat when I was nine, so even that's a stretch.

But for the final round I had a back-up plan, and I was just about exhausted enough by then to run with it.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I sort of had the idea for this one in mind already, as a kind of mental bomb-shelter for in case things got really bad, and it was a case of cheat a little or forfeit by hurling myself out of the nearest window.  For this final, apocalyptic round, we had a choice of three topics, which were Inside Out, Shakespeare's Brain and Interdimensional Toilets.  And the result is called, for reasons that I don't remember and probably never existed in the first place, Aristotle's Last Dance...
It was a dark and stormy night.  Three writers sat on a bench.  The first turned to the other two and said, "You know what, I was recently invited to be on a flash fiction writing contest by that bastard Lee Harris.  You had to write short stories in five minutes.  It was terrifying!"
"That sounds like the worst thing ever," said the second writer.
The third writer, who was mute, just nodded their agreement.
"So how did it go?" the second writer asked.
"Well, the first three rounds were merely hellish.  But the fourth, on the topic of Inside Out, Shakespeare's Brain or Interdimensional Toilets ... Christ, that was just impossible!"
"But you came up with something in the end, right?"
"Well, yes, in the end I did.  But it was a close run thing."
"You have to share it with us, after all this tedious build-up.  Otherwise, what are we even doing here, sitting on this bench in this middle of this dark, stormy night?"
"No," the first writer said, "I'd rather not."
One final thought, because I don't want to leave you with that awful, awful joke.  I said that the above was my mental bomb-shelter, but in fact, I had a backup plan for my backup plan.  If all else failed, I was planning to read the limerick that I'd written a couple of days before and try and pass it off as in some way a response to the actual topic.  So here, by way of dropping the curtain on the tragic drama that was my Ready, Steady Flash experience, is said limerick...
There was a young porpoise named Maurice,
Whose skin was excessively porous,
He shouldn't have ought to
Gone under the water,
That tragic, unfortunate porpoise.
I'm convinced that if I'd got to read my limerick I would totally have won.

* I'm kidding, of course.  James Joyce would have lapped up Ready, Steady Flash and come back for seconds.  Yeah, Joyce, you heard me right!

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Five Minute Flashes, Part 1

So I may have mentioned that I took part in the Ready Steady Flash challenge at this year's Fantasycon, in which myself, Guy Adams, Anne Smith Spark and Jeanette Ng were challenged by the nefarious mister Lee Harris to write flash fiction stories on previously unannounced topics, in a whoppingly tiny five minutes, and the winner was whoever managed to last the full hour without throwing up, passing out, running screaming from the room or some combination of the three.  Or, wait, maybe it had something to do with how loud the audience were clapping?  Honestly, my memories are a blur; I remember sitting down and I remember being in the bar afterwards downing medicinal glasses of wine, but the gap in between is - well, it's just darkness.  And it's best not to probe that darkness too deeply.  Already the shakes are starting again...

Fortunately I don't have to relive the traumas of those long, long minutes to share the stories that I wrote!  Because I have them saved on my desktop.  And since previous participants chose to share their efforts, presumably in the hope of stressing out future participants even more than they were already stressed out, I've decided to do the same.  Unfortunately these are the sole surviving record of that night, as I was the only one who'd brought a laptop; I should stress that, since I didn't win, these are certainly not the catastrophically low standard that Guy, Anne and Jeanette should be judged by.

That said, I did manage to win the first round!  The subject was Fairies in Space, and my story, funnily enough, was also called Fairies in Space...
"So here's what I'm thinking," Commander Vladovitch said, "the dog went pretty well.  We know we can send a dog into space, right?  And it seemed quite happy." 
"Well," co-commander Turganov said, "the dog died." 
"That's true.  But until it died, it seemed happy enough." 
"This is true." 
"And the monkey went well, yes?  We know that a monkey can survive in space."  
"The monkey did die as well, though."  
"This is also true.  But until then..."  
"Yes," co-commander Turganov agreed, "the monkey did seem happy until it's last agonised moments."  
"But," Commander Vladovitch said, "I'm not sure that we're quite ready to send a human into space.  What with all the dying and everything.  So, what I was thinking..."  
"Yes, commander?"
"What I was thinking was fairies.  They're a lot like people, only more little.  So we'd only need a small spaceship." 
"That's true.  They are a lot like people.  And the spaceship could be very small indeed.  But commander... I can foresee just one problem..."
If I'm honest, it's probably more of a one act play than a flash fiction story, but what the heck?  I wrote it in five minutes.  You try writing anything that's not a shopping list in five minutes, in front of an audience of ravening, bloodthirsty ghouls.  (I mean, I remember them as ravening, bloodthirsty  ghouls; I guess, in retrospect, that they were just normal people, and not terrifying at all.  Actually, that even makes more sense.)

Story two!  Well, story two isn't even a story, now that I go back to it.  It also doesn't make much sense, unless you know that the topic was Porcine Love and Lee misheard that as Paul Simon Love, and that stuck more than the actual subject did.  Oh, and this one's called Untitled, perhaps because I was already pretty confused by this point...
Everyone blamed Garfunkel for what happened.  Everyone said that he was the one with no talent.  Heck, he didn't even write any of their songs!  And that singing voice ... the phrase "like a castrated cat" got trotted out more than once.  And certainly, if you were to look at their solo careers after that tragic day when the pair finally decided they would never work together again, it would be hard not to say that, yes, Garfunkel was indeed the weak link in one of the greatest musical partnerships ever to produce the soundtrack to a Mike Nichols film.  
But only Garfunkel would ever know the truth, and it burned in his heart and soul then he could never, ever share it.  For would have believed him?  Who would have listened?  Who could have accepted the dreadful truth?  
How could he ever reveal that Paul Simon's true song-writing partner was his secret lover?  And that his secret lover was a pig?
Porcine!  Paul Simon!  D'you see?  Yeah, okay, maybe not my finest moment, and I'm not sure that anyone got the Mike Nichols gag either.

But it's okay!  Because there are still a whole two more stories to go, and they're - gasp! - even worse.  I'm not even kidding!  I'm literally only splitting this post in two because having all four of these things together would probably have caused my laptop to spontaneously combust or something...

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Fantasycon 2017

In jest, I expressed to one or two people at Fantasycon this past weekend that having nothing to moan about would take a lot of fun out of this write-up.  But in truth, I'm not altogether the cynical git that I may come over as on occasions, and you know what?  It's really nice to be able to say that a convention was flat out excellent, as Fantasycon 2017 was flat out excellent.

It also leaves me wondering at the fine lines that separate a good convention from a bad one, since most of what was going right was not stuff that was innately exceptional as such; you could have looked at the programming, for example, and expected a Fantasycon very much like every other.  I guess for the most part it just came down to a little (or maybe a lot) of extra thought and effort being sunk in behind the scenes.  Some proper attention seemed to have gone into who was doing what and when; the red coats were on absolutely top form, and there was always someone around to ask daft questions of; and the venue, The Bull Hotel in Peterborough, was ideal in so many ways, with a huge bar space that made it really easy to find people and a separate convention centre to keep all that non-drinking stuff nicely clustered in one place.  For that matter, Peterborough itself turned out to be a rather inspired choice of setting, what with being easy to get to from both north and south and a nice enough place to warrant stepping outside for an hour or two.

On a personal note, having arrived as a bit of a stress-filled mess, (I've been fairly poorly for the last couple of months, in fairness), I was totally astonished both by how much fun I had and how relaxed everything turned out to be.  I mean, not the Ready Steady Flash, obviously, that was a literally nightmarish bungee jump into the pits of Hell - though, and I will absolutely deny this if you ask me, it was also sort of entertaining, and I may even be a little bit glad that I did it.  But on top of that, my three panels went very well indeed, thanks largely to having excellent panelists for the two I moderated: deep and heartfelt thanks to Anna Smith Spark, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Simon Bestwick, Stewart Hotston, Gary Couzens, Gavin Williams and Nina Allan for making my job so effortless.  And my reading was pretty fun too; The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange fared well in its first public outing.  (It helped that I had good reading company in the shape of Mr. Bestwick again and Joely Black, both of whose books I now want to read.)

If I had a single gripe, and bloody hell, of course I do, it's me writing about a convention, it was the same one I almost always have about these things, and Fantasycon especially: not enough to do that wasn't panels and too many panels with generic or done-to-death topics.  And an illustration of how splendidly right these things can go was provided by the Fantasy Economy! panel on the Sunday afternoon, which was a stellar example of four knowledgeable people talking clearly and fascinatingly about a subject that they clearly knew an inordinate amount about.   (Frustratingly, the program is out of date and I can't remember everyone's names, but I imagine they know who they were, and I'm pretty sure I told them all individually or collectively what a brilliant job they'd done.)

But, in the grand scheme of things, a few imperfect panel topics weren't that big a deal.  At least there was a good variety, and like I said above, there was a definite sense that people hadn't just been thrown at subjects for no reason.  And in the end, the best thing a Fantasycon can accomplish is to put you in a suitable space with all of the great people who go to Fantasycons, make sure that alcohol is at hand and not too insanely overpriced, and leave you to get on with things until a suitably preposterous early hour.  And this year's event did that as well as any of the however many of these things I've been to now.

And only as I get to the end of this do I realise that I haven't once mentioned the Room of Death!  But then, I guess we don't talk about the Room of Death...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

My Fantasycon 2017 Schedule

Can it really be that Fantasycon will be my first convention of 2017?  Apparently it can.  But at least I'm making up for my absences at - well, every other con on the planet, I suppose - by keeping myself busy.  And the other notable fact this time around is that everything I'm doing has neatly ranked itself in order of most to least petrifying, so that I get to begin on a note of sweaty-palmed terror and slowly calm down from there, until be the time I set off home I'll be merely mildly spooked.

So, without further adoing, here's what I'll be up to over the coming weekend:

Friday 6.30 pm ‐ Ready Steady Flash
Lee Harris (mod), Guy Adams, Anna Smith Spark, Jeanette Ng, David Tallerman

How hard can it be to write a complete short story in five minutes?  On a topic that you didn't know until a moment before?  And then to do the same thing again and again, in competition with three immensely talented writers?  Well, I don't know, having never tried, but my guess would absolutely goddamn impossibly hard.  The thing is, I'm not the quickest of thinkers; ideas don't explain just pop into my head.  So, yes, I've very nervous about this one indeed.  But unfortunately for me and everyone else, a few years back I decided to never say no when I was asked to do something, at least unless it was patently illegal and / or life-threatening; I mean, if you ask me to smuggle pandas into North Korea then the chances are I'll turn you down.  Anyway, point being, why not come along and watch me stare in rigid horror at a sheet of paper for an hour while far sounder minds produce scintillating word-pictures of unadulterated wit and insight?  It'll be fun!

Friday 7.30 pm ‐ Writing Fighting!
David Tallerman (mod), Anna Smith Spark, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Simon Bestwick, Stewart Hotston

By comparison, plain old moderating a panel promises to be a relative breeze, assuming that the paramedics have managed to get my heart beating in time, of course.  And what panelists I have!  This one promises to be brilliant, and aside from my baseline level of nerves, I'm actually pretty excited for it.  Especially because, with The Ursvaal Exchange, I finally feel like I've begun to really get the knack of this whole writing action sequences lark and won't feel like an utter fraud among such respectable company.

Saturday 4.30 pm ‐ Genre Films: Hidden Treasures
Eric Ian Steele (mod), Lynda Rucker, Gavin Williams, Gary Couzens, David Tallerman, Sean Hogan

Whereas this I'm just plain old looking forward to, no nerves or anything.  Talking about movies?  Yup, I will happily do that anywhere, at any time, in any circumstances and for any reason - which, thinking about it, probably has a lot to do with why I'm single and people don't like to sit next to me on trains.  But hah, who cares!  Movies are way more important than things like human interaction or not getting thrown out of funerals, right?

Sunday 10 am ‐ Reading: Fantasy
David Tallerman, Simon Bestwick, Joely Black

And lastly, at ten o'clock on the Sunday morning - which is basically my version of the crack of dawn - I will be reading, probably from The Ursvaal Exchange but maybe not, I haven't quite decided, in the company of Simon Bestwick and Joely Black.  By this point I've no doubt that I'll be too tired and hungover to find anything short of an Ebola outbreak stressful, though the flip side of that is that I may well fall asleep mid-sentence.  Either way, there's the promise of a restful hour!

But wait!  I have a surprise last minute panel!  What can I say?  Someone dropped out, I got asked to fill in, and as noted above, I almost never so no to anything.  So I'll also be moderating the following, which promises to be easy enough, because who out there doesn't hate film franchises?

Seriously?  Almost nobody?  Oh well, in that case this should be an even quieter end to the weekend than the reading!

Sunday 12.30 pm ‐ Genre Film Beyond the Franchises
David Tallerman (mod), Gary Couzens, Gavin Williams, Romain Collier, Nina Allan

And that really is it!  If I get asked to do anything else, I'll almost certainly say no.

I mean, probably.

Friday, 22 September 2017

It's Nearly Time For The Ursvaal Exchange

It's in the nature of publishing that things move very slowly until suddenly they're moving very quickly indeed.  It seems only a couple of weeks ago that I was working to finish off the third draft of The Black River Chronicles: Level One sequel The Ursvaal Exchange, while Mike and I back-and-forthed about getting our star copy editor Anne Zanoni and our genius cover artist Kim Van Deun booked in.

And the reason for that is that it actually was only a couple of weeks ago.  But now the third draft is in Anne's more than capable hands, and now Kim and I have discussed where we'd like to go with this second cover, and basically it's all happening, with the finish line still a little way off but definitely in sight.  Having given my all to the third draft for the last couple of months, I'm rather glad that the book will be Anne's problem for the next few weeks, and that my main job now is just geeking out with Kim over how cool we can make this thing look.  Even based on the rough sketches I've seen, I can say that the answer is going to be, very damn cool indeed.  I sort of wish I could share them, but I can't, and not only for the obvious, publishing-secretiveness type reasons either.  Nope, I have to keep quiet because Mike's told me to sort out all that cover-related stuff myself this time around, and he doesn't want to see anything until it's done.  No pressure right?  Well, not really, as it turns out, since all I have to do is prod Kim in the general direction of ideas for an awesome image and then let him knock it out of the park.  Basically, covers are by far the most fun part of making books, and anyone who says differently is a liar.

(Though, hey, audiobooks are pretty fun too.  And I just reminded myself that the Level One audiobook that was recorded a while back has finally made its way through whatever labyrinthine process it takes to get an audiobook on Amazon.  It's also really astonishingly cheap - $1.66 at time of writing - and since it's not likely to stay that way forever, this might be the ideal time to nab a copy, yes?  And because I can't stop thinking or talking about covers right now, can I just say that this is my favourite version of Level One's: it's just so satisfyingly square, and I like the logo down there in the corner too.  Digital has cool logos, and they don't get showcased enough.)

Anyway, we were talking about The Ursvaal Exchange, right?  We don't have a release date locked down yet. at least not to the day, but I can say with confidence that it'll be out before Christmas, and hopefully by a comfortable margin.  There'll be more news, of course, as we have it; and who knows, perhaps a bit of a sample too?  That certainly seems like the sort of thing we could rustle up.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Short Story News, September 2017

Well, it has to be said that 2017 is turning into a horrible year for short story sales, which is frustrating to say the least, if only because I'm pretty sure that I'm sending out some of the best fiction I've ever written.  But the compensation is that, for the moment at least, I still have stuff coming out in some very cool venues.

Taking things in reverse order, May saw my somewhat Lovecraftian, somewhat Howardesque sword and sorcery story Now That All the Heroes Are Dead come out from Read Short Fiction.  It's a thoroughly screwed-up tale, if I do say so, with a lot of subtext about who generally ends up doing the dirty work and why, in fantasy worlds or elsewhere; I guess the clue's at least partly there in the title.  Anyway, it's fairly short and it's free to read, so why not take a look?  And if you never quite trust traditional sword and sorcery stories afterwards then don't blame me, they were never that trustworthy in the first place.

Next we have my only comics work of the year, and something that's been slowly coalescing for absolutely years, mine and my C21st Gods co-creator Anthony Summey's short strip Conservationists in this year's Futurequake anthology.  I've already talked about this one quite a bit, so I'll just add that as of last month it's available on Comixology at a really reasonable price - see here - and that I was hugely pleased to come across a review that singled Conservationists out.  I was convinced no-one would get this one, what with dialogue-free alien invasion stories with animals as protagonists not exactly being a major subgenre, so it's nice that at least one reader responded to what Anthony and I cooked up.

(Speaking of reviews: there have been a few for Horror Library volume 6, but the only one I managed to keep a note of was this one, for reasons that will become apparent if you read it.  All right, yeah, the reviewer picks Casualty of Peace as their favourite story in the collection.  But it's also a really thorough review, so there.)

July also saw my personal highlight for this year on the short fiction front, my second appearance in a Flame Tree Publishing anthology.  I can't stress how stupidly gorgeous these are!  I suspect my biggest regret when I die will be that I didn't somehow figure out a way to wrangle a story into every single one of them, because they're some of the nicest books I've ever seen; at any rate, to be in not one but two of them has been a huge thrill.  This time around, it's The Sign in the Moonlight - lead story of the eponymous short story collection - in their Lost Worlds collection, and I'm up against such vaguely prestigious sorts as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard.  Oh, and those Howard and Lovecraft blokes I plugged earlier.  Seriously though, these books are absolutely fantastic, and if you're into classic genre fiction then you owe it to yourself to track them down.

Which brings us up to the present day, and the podcasting of my flash horror piece My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7 at 
YA market Cast of Wonders.  As much as I was ever so slightly disappointed that they didn't manage to find an actual seven year old girl to read it, I'm happy to settle for Head Editor Marguerite Kenner's take; as I pointed out to her afterwards, I know how hard it is to read this grammatically challenged little story out loud, and Marguerite does a fine job.  You can hear it here.

Lastly, I have a couple more stories pending at what's basically my authorial home now, Digital Fiction Publishing - those being Twitcher on the horror front, first published in Pseudopod, and SF story Free Radical, which appeared in the Second Contacts anthology a year or two back.  Sad to say, with me now slush-reading on both the fantasy and science-fiction sides, I've had to bar myself from submitting due to the blatant conflict of interest!  Still, it's been a heck of a run, and I'm really proud to have so much work with what's become, out of nowhere, the most consistently excellent reprint market around.  And yeah, I'm horrendously biased, but that doesn't make it any the less true.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Writing Ramble: On Invisible Words (Pt. 1)

A few weeks ago, I was discussing editing with a couple of writer friends, and the conversation came round to the topic of overusing common words.  The consensus seemed to be that such words were effectively rendered invisible, and so it didn't matter how frequently they cropped up; their very familiarity would let them slip under the radar.

Now, I won't say that's not true; for many readers, I'm sure it is.  Get engaged enough in a story and it'll take more than an overabundance of speech tags to drag you out of it, or even eight uses of a word like "look" or "then" or "but" on a page.  But it's certainly not universally true, and I say this as someone who was taken to task by an editor last year (quite rightly!) for abusing a certain popular pronoun - or, more recently, by a reviewer for over-reliance of a word just uncommon enough to stand out.

The lesson I learned the hard way was, however invisible you might think a word - or phrase, or stylistic tick - is, if you overuse it enough, there'll always be someone out there who'll call you on the fact.  So, in honour of that eagle-eyed reader, here are four reasons that overusing words, even ones so common that they hardly register, may not be such a great idea...

- If They're invisible, Why Have Them?
Look, I don't mean to be invisibilist here, I've seen enough movies to know that invisible people can make meaningful contributions to society.  But I'm not convinced that's so true of words.  "Said" is a fine example here: I've heard it claimed that no matter how many "he said"s and "she said"s you throw at a reader, they'll never tire, purely because the phrase is so fundamental that it goes ignored.  I beg to differ - in fact, I'd argue that ending every line of dialogue with a speech tag makes your writing look like it belongs to a five year old! - but that's beside the present point.  If the reader's going to ignore those speech tags, what are they doing but taking up space?  If you're getting paid by the word then fair enough, but if not then maybe they'd be better stripped down to a point where they're actually serving some useful purpose.
- Bad Habits Become Worse Habits Become Bad Writing
Nine times out of ten, you overuse a word or phrase because it's easy to do so; that's the first word or phrase that comes to mind in a particular context, and you're rushing, and there it goes, the fifth "only" or "even" or "however" of the page.  But good writing and easy writing are in many ways polar opposites, and the habit of accumulating favourite words and even sentences may give you a recognizable style, but it'll be a recognizably crappy one.  Soon enough you're writing everything according to the same rhythms, with similarly shaped paragraphs and dialogue that follows the same patterns and not a jot of energy or variety left anywhere.  Of course, you're probably hugely successful, because I've just described every hack writer ever, but who cares about that, right?  Formulaic writing might put food on the table, but challenging yourself - um - probably feeds the soul or something.
- My Invisible Isn't Your Invisible
Okay, so this is basically the point I made in the introduction, but it bears repeating: reading habits vary wildly, and what you think is perfectly fine might be just what's guaranteed to leave an editor frothing at the mouth.  Here's an example: I recently read a story where the author leaned heavily on comma splices; you know, those sentences missing a crucial coordinating conjunction that Word loves to stick green lines under.  One or two, or even one or two a page, would have passed unnoticed, but once I noticed that they were cropping up like clockwork they became so hard to ignore that they were all I could see.  And really, the last thing you want as a writer is to have stylistic ticks that are so obvious they're all the reader notices.
- Just Because A Word Works That Doesn't Make it the Right Word
The more you favour certain words in the assumption that they'll slip under the radar, the more likely you are to try and fill square holes with round pegs.  There's a lot to be said for taking extra time to really dig through the thesaurus in search of that word that actually means what you're after, instead of making do with one that's more or less in the right ballpark and hey no-one's going to notice anyway right?  Making the quick and easy choices can leave a reader puzzled, and trust me when I say that as a slush-reader it's a colossal turn-off to realise that a writer's gone for the lazy word choices every time at the expense of clarity, detail and complexity.  Once you're tuned into that, it gets really hard to miss, and all those supposedly invisible words that are either doing nothing or taking up space that could go to really useful words begin to stand out like so many sore thumbs.
Now, this is obviously all just my somewhat warped perspective, and I'm conscious that a lot of that warping was done by the fact that I seem to have spent most of this year editing rather than writing, and now I can't read a license plate without hunting for typos.  Still, I think that the basic points are sound: overusing words, especially because you've persuaded yourself that no-one will notice, is a risky business, and one that's sure to bite you in the ass.  Or see you landing a multi-million pound contract.  But definitely one or the other!

And in part two, if and when I find the time and energy to write it, I'll go over some of what I've personally been up to track down those darn invisible (and not so invisible) words...